One of my favorite things about the first round of lightning book reviews I did last month was the way it brought me back to the different bookstores I used to go to all the time before everything shut down. Going through the first half of that list, it felt a little like I was roaming around Philly again, stopping in all of my favorite spots. Walking down the street on a break from work, just to get out of the building. Letting my friends get me out of my room to see another neighborhood for a change. It was nice to think of these things not so much in the context of missing them, which I do, but as tangible little pieces of a year defined by the lack of them.
One thing I noticed is that I didn’t get to touch on any of my favorite used book stores in that first installment. So shout out to Book Haven on 22nd and Fairmount, here’s a real picture of Nick and I outside their windows as we pass by on our walks:
The bookseller at Book Haven once looked at my pile of books and said I’d probably like WG Sebald’s The Emigrants and they were right—really incredible book and also up there with Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on the list of the most depressing things I’ve ever read in my life. I once got a signed Tony Kushner collection at Book Haven too.
I also really miss walking around the stacks at Book Corner, which I think is a kind of overflow outlet for the Free Library like a block away. Book Corner is great because they used to have these deals where you could get mass markets for a dollar, regular paperbacks for two, and hardbacks for three—something like that. I once walked out of there with a backpack full of books for less than ten bucks. Also, once when I was having a particularly tough week, I walked by and saw in the window a first edition copy of Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies, one of my all-time favorite books. It felt like a tiny pat on the shoulder. Local bookstores rock.
Here’s the second half of my reading list from 2020. Again, you can catch up on part 1 here if you don’t know what I’m talking about (but you don’t have to, obviously).
I liked Mao II a whole lot better than Point Omega, even though, thinking about it now, the central plot is oddly similar. Old intellectual/writer-guy lives in isolation with a younger man and woman and there’s an uncomfortable love triangle between the three of them. While the pieces may appear to mirror each other, the world around them feels more fleshed out in Mao II, and the characters feel less like cardboard cutouts. Still not as good as White Noise, by far my favorite of the DeLillo books I’ve read, but I enjoyed it. Side note: I am very interested to see what Baumbach’s White Noise adaptation is going to be like.
There’s so much to The Sprawl that a new angle comes to mind every time I think about it. Jason Diamond packs elements of cultural critique, personal history, film criticism, music criticism, and sociological analysis into this warm and inviting appraisal of the suburbs.
My friend Tali and I went to see this Basquiat exhibit at the Guggenheim the last time we were in New York, which I think would have been October 2019. I picked this book up at the gift shop on the way out, it’s a really interesting collection of essays and interviews about Basquiat and Defacement specifically. But because the painting is such a direct response to the 1983 murder of Michael Stewart by the police, the book ends up being more broadly about injustice and structural racism. It’s a really interesting overview of how this community of artists responded to Stewart’s murder and the book collects a lot of their artwork from that time as well.
This was actually a birthday gift from Tali, a slim and small graphic novel. Here’s what Tali wrote when she gave it to me—“THIS BOOK IS INTENSE AND THERE IS A 50/50 CHANCE YOU’LL HATE IT.” It is a surprisingly intense story about growing up and coming into a sort of existential maturity, depicted through DeForge’s neon and pastel line drawings which oscillate between cartoonish and abstract throughout the narrative. It’s the kind of thing you can blow through in an hour and immediately miss terribly. It hurt and I flipped a coin and I loved it.
This was a re-read. I first picked up this copy of The Metamorphosis when I was studying abroad in Oxford during my junior year of college, from this little store around the corner from the cafe where they used to give me a free big vegan cookie. That’s not that important to the book but now I’m thinking about those cookies.
Kafka’s titular story is obviously a classic and ripe for meme material. But what I noticed most on this re-read were the additional inclusions here, like “Letter to My Father,” a really heavy and uncomfortable piece that gets deep into Kafka’s emotional and personal history and his fucked up relationship with his father. It adds a new dimension to the (relatively little) work of his that I’ve read.
I recognize the criticisms of Charlie Kaufman’s films that I’ve seen basically all over my Twitter feed, but I do love most of everything I’ve seen from him. I think Synecdoche, New York is such an interesting movie and that Philip Seymour Hoffman is brilliant in it. Also Adaptation stars not one but TWO Nicholas Cages.
Anyway, I liked I’m Thinking of Ending Things, really a very dark and drab movie that pulls you through a mundane kind of existential horror defined by empty space and empty air. I was enticed enough by the nuts and bolts of how the general conceit worked that I wanted to read the book and sit with the ideas a little longer. The book is fine, but the movie is a fairly faithful adaptation and the elements that it left out weren’t super necessary, and the parts that it added (the cartoony visual in the middle, the musical ending) did a lot of work to make the uncanny dread that much more powerful.
There was too much Kaufman in the middle of the year, I’ll admit that! His novel, Antkind, is a slapstick satire that is often funny, randomly beautiful, and way, way too long. The narrator, a film critic named B. Rosenberger Rosenberg, is a noxious blowhard who is fun to laugh at for only so long.
At high school swim practice we used to sometimes have to wear these big bulky mesh swimsuits over our regular swimsuits for resistance reasons, and when you finally got to take them off you felt like a fucking olympic. Sometimes I think about that when I read a short snappy book right after a large hulking one, and I thought about being free of that garbage-bag swimsuit a whole lot while I blew through A Burning. This book—which tells a trio of interconnected stories that surround a woman in India who gets arrested for a bombing she didn’t commit—is thoughtful and rich while running at a thriller’s pace. The sections told from the perspective of the actress Lovely are especially effervescent, which is helpful given how dire the rest of the book is.
Glitter Up The Dark does a really good job at running through a lot of musical touchstones in a relatively short page count while still feeling very readable. Sasha Geffen approaches the question of how popular music has challenged and reconfigured the boundaries of gender by weaving together all manner of stories and songs, and it was such a joy to read their analyses of these records, artists, and music videos. After reading each section, I’d blast the source material and do a little dance around my room, just to feel something.
This book was kind of a shock to read in a year when so many pieces of our lives just kind of disappeared. In The Memory Police, the disappearance is literal. The characters in this book wake up regularly to find that something has been taken away from them—a memory or a concept or a physical good, flowers or ferries or even the use of one’s right arm. The disappearance is enforced by an organization called the memory police, a brutal and oppressive operation that makes sure that no trace of these items or concepts remains on the island. The Memory Police is bleak but fascinating, and the concept felt heavy on my chest. The translation felt a little stilted and off in places, but for the most part I’d say this is a winner.
I’ve read parts of this before but after reading Matt Colquhoun’s book Egress earlier in the year, I wanted to broaden my familiarity with Mark Fisher’s stuff. Capitalist Realism is such a tight and mighty argument and a deeply inspiring take on the suffocating power of capitalism. I love the way Fisher is able to so eloquently weave together complex histories and heavy Marxist theory with popular culture and personal work experiences.
Fisher’s concepts of the weird and the eerie came into play a lot in Colquhoun’s Egress, although here they felt more firmly rooted to literature (and a little bit of music and a little bit of television) than something like Capitalist Realism. One of the things I love about Egress in hindsight is how that book brings these concepts to their inevitable conclusion, fleshing out that connection with Fisher’s more explicitly political work.
I read this big biography/autobiography of David Lynch pretty much throughout the year. I think I literally started in January (I remember pulling the big tome out of my backpack on the bus) and finished it in December. I actually think this was a great way to read Room to Dream, kind of slowly and patiently letting Lynch’s life and works unfold on you, leaving lots of empty space like he would in his films. The concept here works really well—Kristine McKenna will write a chapter that’s pretty much explicitly biographical, including interviews from some of the key characters, and Lynch follows up that chapter with one from his perspective. Lynch writes just as he speaks, with that pleasant kind of folksy aura that’s incredibly inviting but also guarded about giving too much away. I especially loved the sections during Lynch’s Philly years—I realized that I walk by the house where he used to live all the time which is kind of neat to think about.
This is such a great compilation of the work of one of my favorite music journalists these days. Chicago Reader’s Leor Galil does such an excellent job bringing the stories of these artists to life, and the level of detail that he pours into these features really shows how much he knows and loves the Chicago scene. I was especially fond of his American Football feature and his Willis Earl Beal feature. Side note: if there’s ever a part 2 to this collection, I would really love to have this recent massive oral history of Joan of Arc in print some day.
This was such a great find, an early Christmas present from my sister. I grew up in Florida and feel a certain connection with Florida bands, but I don’t really have ties to Gainesville and that scene is so important to a lot of the music I love, so it was great to get to know these bands a little better while reading this. Walker’s book is brisk and economical, I’d like to read a crash course like this for just about any punk scene. The one thing I’ll say is that Walker glides through the stuff about Fest very quickly. I would have hoped that he’d spend a little more time on that, but otherwise this was a super solid history.
I mentioned in my blurb about The Left Hand of Darkness how heavy sci-fi and fantasy are not really my scene, although I am often intrigued by books in these genres. I love David Lynch’s batshit Dune movie and I think the new adaptation looks sick, so I figured I should get to know the source material a little better. Dune was a lot more difficult for me to love than Le Guin’s book—I really loved the first third of this but the middle portion kind of wore on me. I think the style is easy for me to get bored of. The final third did get my interest back a little bit, although the ending was really quite abrupt. Still, I'm looking forward to seeing a gigantic sandworm someday maybe in a movie theater but let’s be honest probably on my smudgy laptop screen.
You know when your high school teachers are retiring so at the end of the year they just start giving away all their stuff? That’s how I ended up with this actually gigantic collection of all of Shakespeare’s work that went on to sit on my shelf for like ten years before I actually opened it up and found hey this guy’s got some pretty good books huh? I’ve never read Hamlet before somehow, so I kind of laid this humongous thing down on my kitchen table for a day and blew through it. Then I put the book back on the shelf, presumably for another ten years, after which I’ll see what all this Macbeth hype is all about.
I took this special course on religion in literature during my freshman year of college, and I think we read No Exit in that class but I didn’t really remember it. I pulled this off my shelf and re-read it real quick a couple days before Christmas. You can tell I was feeling real merry.
Once Tali and I were leaving the Philadelphia Museum of Art and, upon seeing the oddly long line at the coat check, we kind of stopped in our tracks. In my memory there were like thirty people in line, which is more than I’ve ever seen for any coat check that is not the one directly after a show at Union Transfer. “Well, we better get started,” she said, and I thought that was so funny. Like in that Fairly Oddparents episode where they’re at the escalator theme park and Timmy asks “when do we get to the ride” and his parents say “this is the ride!” Anyway, the last line in No Exit, “let’s get on with it,” which Garcin says on realizing that he has to live the rest of eternity trapped with two other people as they all drive each other mad, reminded me of that. “Well, we better get started.”
The dialogue in this book, especially in the first 50 pages when the main characters are all elementary-aged, is a real triumph. It’s so snappy, it’s like a whirlwind of humor and ache.
“What happened?” Nugget turned around.
“Don’t you live next to the Metra, Nugget?”
“Something bad, Nugget,” I said.
“I’m a heavy sleeper,” Nugget said. “My mom has to shake me in the morning.”
We told him. His eraser dropped out of his mouth. It bounced off the tile.
“That’s going to give me nightmares,” he said. “I’m sad.”
“You’re scared,” I told him.
I keep thinking back to this exchange. The first two thirds of this book are really incredible, telling the story of Claude’s childhood living in the south side of Chicago. The last part felt like a little bit of a tangent, but this is still one of the best debut novels I’ve read in a while.
The last book I read last year was, uh, dark! A lot of divorce and domestic displeasure in this collection. Now is when I tell you my deep dark secret—everyone seems to hate that movie Birdman but I actually think it’s pretty decent. It has an energy that’s fun to me. I called this “Birdman: The Book” because the title story is the basis for the play that they’re putting up in the movie. Anyway, these stories feel like tiny living room explosions—in one of them, over the course of what like five pages, a fighting couple appears to accidentally tear a baby in half! It’s wild stuff. Happy new year, you know?
Thanks so much for going down this long road with me. I feel like doing this has kind of cemented the memory of these books more firmly in my brain, which I think is a really good thing considering how slippery most of last year feels to me already. That’s one of the things writing can do for you I guess! Make things less wiggly. Keeping a diary and all.
Again, let me know if you have thoughts! Did you hate something I loved or love something I was ehhh on? You got something against Lynch’s Dune? Unsubscribing because of that Birdman thing? (Please don’t I’m sorry.) Let me hear it.
Yesterday, I realized that it had been three years since this music video came out. I remember I was working from home because the Eagles parade was happening and our office was shut down. It still seems fitting. I love this record and this video so I’ll leave you with this, until next time:
My name is Jordy Walsh, and I’m a writer based in Philadelphia (obviously, I said it like ten times today jeez). I write about music for The Alternative and Slant Magazine. I Keep a Diary is a newsletter about music, books, writing, and probably a lot of vague emotions. You can follow me on Twitter for more thoughts on all that stuff and also a lot of pictures of my dog. Thanks for joining me.